Read Mary Ruefle’s Pause Essay.
Writer Mary Ruefle doesn’t own a computer. Her website (obviously managed by someone else) suggests that in order to contact her you should run into someone she knows personally on the street. Well, I emailed someone she knows personally. Then I sat down to my typewriter and typed her a letter, which she answered (also with a typewriter, and with better margins). And so our conversation began.
I am so grateful for your letter and for your invitation to write back. To get down to business, I have a few questions for you about “Pause,” which you can answer, expand upon, whatever you want to do. So I will just go ahead–
The essay reads like a wise and honest letter from a mentor to her young, naive mentee. Though you write that nothing can prepare a girl for how she will experience menopause, because every woman is different, there is still a preparatory warning in the telling, in speaking the truth about a subject when no one else does. It serves at least to give the girl knowledge that what she will go through is not what she thought. It will be both much worse and much better. Why do you think women don’t tell, as you have?
MARY: Oh, I think a great many women tell, but what I have done is written it, not for an ear to hear but for all to read. That is one answer; the other answer is that many women go through some kind of “traumatic change” in middle age, but never associate it with menopause. Menopause becomes just one more thing that is happening to them, as if it were part of a list, but I think menopause should perhaps be written in bold letters at the head of the list, as the cause of all that is listed beneath.
RACHEL: Are women ashamed?
MARY: Many are, I guess, which is a shame in itself; one should be ashamed to be ashamed. But today, more and more, women are, I think, at least I hope so, less and less ashamed. The real question of shame does not fall on the women who are experiencing menopause, it falls on those who surround them and fail to react with compassion. In my family, in the sixties, my mother would have hot flashes at dinner and say so and my father and I would make fun of her, and imitate her dramatically throwing off her clothes and opening the windows; I am now ashamed of our behavior, but my mother is dead and I can’t apologize to her. At the same time, in retrospect, I remember she had a certain sudden elan at that time; she dyed her hair and wore sportier clothes than she used to, stuff like that. What her interactions with men were I have no way of knowing.
RACHEL: Do you think women feel alone in their experience of menopause?
MARY: That is the mark of youth–to think you are alone in your experience–so maybe it is the last act of youthful thinking, to think you are alone in menopause. But one is never alone! There is no experience a woman can have which has not been had by millions before her. The first woman to live on Mars might be an exception, but will that really be that different from, say, the first woman to cross the Himalayas on foot? Or to fly an airplane? Swim the English channel? Those “firsts” are of another ilk, let us call it the Ripley’s ilk, or the Guinness ilk. It’s not the same thing. But think back to the first time you were passionately in love, and how you thought no one has ever loved like this before … well, by the time you are fifty or sixty that’s just a hoot, because you know that millions have. At the same time, the feeling that no one has ever loved like this is so universal it’s true! I mean the particular feeling is genuine in one sense, and disingenuous in another sense.
RACHEL: Is talking about or not talking about menopause a generational thing?
MARY: Generations change, generations stay the same. There is that marvelous poem by Philip Larkin, “High Windows,” wherein he (ironically) speculates how lucky the new generation is, not to believe in God and to have birth control, how those two things will set everyone absolutely free. And again, in one sense it’s true and in another sense it’s not, it changes nothing. As for my own mother, as I have said, I was discompassionate; but I was a teenager and totally self-absorbed, I didn’t think for a moment that my mother had experienced a single thing that I was experiencing at that time; as a living breathing being I was unique! Looking back on my own ignorance breaks my heart. But if I had said “Hey, mom, tell me what you are going through,” I wouldn’t have understood. It is remindful of Rilke who told the youth to live the questions because if the answers were given to him he wouldn’t be able to understand them. There are certain things we just can’t possibly understand when we are young, things that can be told but remain one-dimensional until we have lived them.
Look, people change or die or go away and life goes on; either you think that is terrible beyond endurance, or beautiful as a kaleidoscope.
RACHEL: Who was your mentor, if you had one? Do you consider yourself a mentor now? To your students, your readers, your family members?
MARY: I never had a mentor in the sense of the term as it is used today, especially among writers. But I believe that every adult in one’s life is a mentor, even those who are mean or unwise; a mean adult can teach you a great deal about meanness. That is a lesson in itself. You can emulate it or you can be determined to never emulate it; either way it is a lesson. All adults, in this sense, are mentors to the young. But I don’t think mentors ever consider themselves mentors, at least I know I don’t consider myself one, not to my students or readers or family members; but if they consider myself to be a mentor, that’s their business, that’s their life. All any adult can do is live in such a way that young people take note, for better or for worse. I love that line by Rickie Lee Jones, the singer: take my advice and go throw it away. Sometimes, admitting you know nothing can be an inspiration to the young.
RACHEL: I think maybe what is most scary about a girl’s 20s is that everything is new and feels definitive. George Eliot talks about it in “Middlemarch,” how it takes time to experience how circumstances change, nothing stays the same, pain often can turn into strength. Many young women (myself, for one) have experienced depression that, at the time, felt like the end of the world. You say that menopause feels similar, but it is not the same. Can you explain a little to us how it’s different? Maybe it’s that our 20s/30s are actually not the end of the world, whereas menopause marks the end of the world as you knew it?
MARY: Every day marks the end of the world as you knew it! For starters. The thing about depression is that when you are young and experience it, you feel like this is it, I will be depressed until the day I die. But if you live long enough–if you don’t kill yourself or something stupid like that–you come out of your depression, things change and flow on, and then it happens again and you come out of it again and after awhile you see the cycles and after you recognize the cycles you don’t feel anymore that you will be depressed until the day you die. Menopause is no different–you feel it is the end of the world, but it is not. You come out of it and you are happier than you ever could have imagined whilst you were in the midst of it. You are invisible and free and have become the person you were becoming all along! If it helps, think of the changes our planet has always gone through–volcanoes, earthquakes, plates shifting beneath the seas–it’s terrible, but in the end new continents are formed, islands destroyed or created, and who’s to say that the new is worse than the old? It’s just different. Our planet is still being born! And every time there’s a natural disaster it emerges a bit more, a bit closer to what it will eventually be, if in fact it will ever be a static system, which I doubt. Look, people change or die or go away and life goes on; either you think that is terrible beyond endurance, or beautiful as a kaleidoscope.
RACHEL: We young girls are so full of ourselves and our little lives. You reference it a few times, slyly: the yoga we do to control our bodies that can’t be controlled, the flowers and shoes and trinkets we buy, the babies we coddle, the MEN we coddle. Would you say our lives will get larger later because we stop thinking about ourselves so much?
MARY: Absolutely! As any young mother will tell you! The birth of a baby, for one, will stop you from thinking about yourself. But age will too, in ever broadening ways. When you are a young mother, you think of yourself as one who has stopped thinking about herself and thinks only about her baby, but when you are older the “baby” turns into more and more people and things. At the same time, older people are very very full of themselves and their little lives! I know I am. That never changes. But younger people tend to ignore the elderly, to treat them as non-entities, and we need to treat them as tenderly as babies! It’s hard, I myself had an aged parent I virtually ignored, but I hoped that his nursing home caregivers were treating him tenderly! And so we negotiate, and barter, and compromise, until the ends of our days. I’m no saint, take my advice and throw it away …
RACHEL: I feel afraid. What will I do when I go crazy in my 40s and 50s as I am sure to do? What advice can you give me, beyond a warning? How can I hope to protect myself, or at least protect the people I love?
MARY: Beyond a warning, I can give you a blessing. The blessing is this: Go crazy, let yourself go crazy, for you have no choice and you cannot protect yourself. You cannot protect yourself from life, from aging and changing and dying. So embrace it in so far as you can. And you cannot protect the people you love! You can only bless them, and wish for them all the things you wish for yourself. Each person has her own journey, acknowledge that and you are off to a good start.
“Pause” is one of the essays in Mary Ruefle’s new book of prose, My Private Property, to be published by Wave Books in September of 2016. The book may be ordered by contacting wavepoetry.com. This article originally appeared in the Mothers & Grandmothers issue. For more inspiring stories about dealing with mothers and grandmothers, check out The Late Birth of Birth Control and Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle.